In a world where social media outrage can ruin lives and careers in the span of a single day, a few hundred or a thousand angry people on Twitter can cause frantic over-corrections from gatekeepers or corporations desperate to avoid a scandal. See, for example, the self-flagellating apology of two editors at The Nation for publishing a poem that ostensibly “caused harm to members of several communities.” Yet the question of just how seriously to take these controversies is still a hard one to answer. Anyone can get angry about anything. So what does social media anger mean for art, and artists, specifically?
The fate of the Netflix series Insatiable, which was dropped earlier this month after the trailer provoked widespread denunciation, may be a useful measure of the true impact of social media backlash. Insatiable first came under fire on social media after the release of a 2-minute teaser trailer on July 19. The video introduced audiences to 17-year-old Patty Bladell (Debby Ryan), an obese emotional eater who becomes slender after getting punched in the mouth and spending three months with her jaw wired shut. Now that “Fatty Patty” looks like, well, Debby Ryan, she has the opportunity to reinvent herself—but what she really wants is to exact vengeance on everyone who ever mistreated her by becoming a literal beauty queen.
Based on the trailer alone, Insatiable seemed like well-trod territory: a classic ugly duckling story with a Mean Girls kick. But the premise (along with offending footage of Debby Ryan wearing a fat suit) inspired the immediate creation of a petition to cancel the show. “It perpetuates not only the toxicity of diet culture, but the objectification of women’s bodies,” the petition reads. “We still have time to stop this series from being released, and causing a devastation of self-doubt in the minds of young girls who will think that to be happy and be worthy, they need to lose weight.”
Before we go any further, it’s worth noting that the early outrage over the show was demonstrably based on a bald misreading of its message. Far from reveling in her transformation, which takes place off-screen with the first few minutes of the first episode, the newly thin Patty is consumed by rage. Losing weight brings her festering resentment and unresolved anger closer to the surface; she lashes out, loses control, and sabotages her successes as fast as she can rack them up. The show’s true focus is on how her self-destructive hunger (a trait she shares with several other characters, each with an insatiable need for something) leads to ruin in every possible way.
But whether it’s a show as fresh or funny as the dark comedies that inspired it (Heathers is a clear influence, along with Drew Barrymore’s entire 1990s rom-com catalog) remains up for debate—because when the reviews came in, they were a so-say-we-all chorus of condemnation on explicitly moral grounds. Rather than reviewing the show on its own terms, critics put the message of the series on trial and came back with a unanimous verdict.
“Big girls aren’t the only target here. The series also takes aim at #MeToo, closeted homosexuality and pedophilia. A real laugh riot,” said the Los Angeles Times, while Fast Company scolded the show for “an irresponsible, dangerous depiction of [Patty’s] too-easy physical transformation.” The New York Times lamented that “viewers have to wade through too much absurd plot and incoherent moral messaging to find the rare meaningful moments.” Refinery29 dinged Insatiable for depicting Patty’s downward spiral post-weight loss instead of “interrogating all the warped and dangerous ways society views women’s bodies.” Buzzfeed denounced it twice: “Here’s Why Insatiable Is Actually Incredibly Offensive,” followed three days later by “13 Ways Insatiable Is Really Fucking Problematic.” IndieWire reported with horror that “heroes are villains, villains are heroes, statutory rape is a joke, and people—people!—are murdered, all in a high school ‘comedy’ primarily obsessed with winning a fancy tiara.” The dragging concluded with Lauren Gussis, the creator of Insatiable who had previously pleaded with audiences to give the show a chance, being subjected to a remarkably inquisitorial interview with The Hollywood Reporter, in which she was questioned at length about her motivations and personal politics vis-a-vis society’s treatment of fat people.
None of this is to say that Insatiable is the best comedy of the year, or that it should be immune from negative criticism. (As someone who watches a great deal of television for professional purposes, I found the show uneven but mostly enjoyable, especially when it abandons all pretense of teachable moments and plunges headlong into either pitch-black satire or utter absurdity.) But it’s hard not to conclude, looking at two dozen scathing reviews that all denounce the show in near-identical language, that it didn’t get an entirely fair shake.
What’s interesting is that the well-poisoning effect of that early social media outrage is real, but limited in scope; it hasn’t seeped beyond the relatively small circle of tastemakers who make up the progressive millennial media. (On Rotten Tomatoes, for instance, Insatiable boasts an 83 percent fresh rating among audiences—compared with just 10 percent from critics.) Instead of influencing popular opinion, the campaign to cancel the show on politically correct grounds seems mostly to have served the purpose of enforcing a critical orthodoxy amongst writers, by yoking the series to a framework in which it simply couldn’t compete—and had no intention of competing in the first place. This is, after all, a show where one of the pilot’s sharpest punchlines comes from a middle-aged male pageant coach who’s just been falsely accused of groping his clients, as he muses about the no-win nature of his predicament in a world governed by modern #MeToo conventions. (“I was an accused molester saying the victim made it up, which was almost as bad as if I’d actually done it!”)
Insatiable clearly did not set out to be a delivery system for socially conscious messaging that reveres the sacred cows of the political left. Why, then, were these the terms on which it was judged?
There’s little question that the overlap between media folks and heavy social media users has a lot to do with it. It’s easy to see, for instance, how the Twitter-based amplification of these controversies might cause the critics and journalists who spend the most time on the website to drastically overestimate how interesting or persuasive those controversies are to an audience outside their echo chamber. It’s also possible that the foreknowledge of the show’s potential for offense primed reviewers to look for the same, and made it that much harder to watch with an open mind. Certainly, culture critics are as susceptible as anyone else to the siren song of a good pile-on, knowing that their contribution to the fray will be duly praised and retweeted by other members of their in-group—and the response to Insatiable was distinctly tribal in flavor, with its critics behaving like an army uniting to neutralize a shared threat (or, more cynically, a group of high school girls bonding through the ostracizing of an undesirable from their lunchroom table). And if the savaging was a team effort, the aftermath—in which an abundance of listicles celebrating the scathing-est lines from the bad reviews emerged—looked an awful lot like a collective victory dance.
The state of opinion journalism and cultural criticism at large does its own part to feed this trend, even for writers who might otherwise be inclined to adopt a contrary take. As identity politics has emerged as an increasingly dominant framework for cultural analysis at many publications, there’s little incentive for a writer to stick his neck out to defend a work of art that’s already been tarred as fat-shaming, racist, sexist, or otherwise problematic. Less-established writers, particularly, may fear being marked as unemployable at the plurality of outlets where wokeness rules—in a world where the number of paying jobs continues to dwindle.
Most writers would be forgiven for concluding that the personal and professional risks of offering an alternative viewpoint far outweigh the rewards, especially when denouncing a show or movie for being problematic is conversely guaranteed to get clicks: from the offended audience who are thrilled to have their anger validated, from people who don’t care about the show but do care about being on the right side of the culture wars, and of course, from people who loathe this type of criticism but nevertheless can’t seem to stop reading it, fueling a backlash-to-the-backlash that keeps the machine trundling onward. It doesn’t take long for the art that inspired the conversation to vanish beneath a pile of think pieces, sacrificed to the discourse that cares more about hot takes than nuanced analysis or entertainment value.
Woke critique isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But what’s interesting here, and what studios can take away from the Insatiable saga, is that the people who fuel the outrage are not the same people who fuel a show’s success. Ordinary viewers aren’t necessarily aware of these controversies, and even if they are, they don’t seem to care. And while they might not make as much noise on Twitter, there are a whole lot more of them—which is why a second season of Insatiable could easily be in the offing.
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Kat Rosenfield is a culture writer and novelist. Her next book, No One Will Miss Her, will be published by William Morrow in October 2021.